Elite Wildlife Officers Pass the Badge

Changing Guard at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge

For many of us who have shifted to telework over the past two months, our new office space includes new coworkers — some with unorthodox work behavior. They take naps under the desk, want to play at all hours, and whine during video calls. For Federal Wildlife Officer Rob Barto, however, gaining a coworker this spring has been a very different experience. Barto recently returned from Michigan with his new partner after an intensive 144-hour training program, where the pair learned to work together as a highly disciplined team.

Meet Eider: a young Shepherd Malinois mix from Belarus, our new Canine (K9) Wildlife Officer for Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

From now on, Barto and Eider will go everywhere together — on patrol by boat, plane, truck, and on foot. The one place you won’t find Eider? Napping under Barto’s desk. As a working dog, he’ll maintain a serious daily regimine from his kennel outside the house.

The new officer’s arrival has been anticipated for months, and the Kenai community played a special role in naming him through a public submission call earlier this spring. “Eider” honors a type of sea duck found in Alaska; two of the four species, spectacled and Steller’s eiders, receive extra protection as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Protecting wildlife and protecting his partner and other humans are the primary job duties for Eider, one of only 11 K9 officers in the National Wildlife Refuge System’s Law Enforcement program.

Eider and Barto will have a unique distinction among other K9 teams: Eider has gone above and beyond in his training, and is certified as both a wildlife detection dog and a patrol dog — perhaps the only one of his kind in service in the country.

Rex, recently retired K9 Wildlife Officer for Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Rob Barto/USFWS.

As Eider takes up his badge, he follows in the paw prints of veteran K9 and Barto’s retired partner, Rex. A sunny-looking golden Labrador retriever, Rex has been on duty with Barto since 2010. His discerning senses have sniffed out critical evidence and tracked elusive scents across the nearly 2 million acre Kenai Refuge and beyond, working on assignments throughout Alaska and even in Canada.

Barto reminisces about some of the awe-inspiring feats of his furry coworker in detecting wildlife crime. There was the time that Rex helped investigate a report of caribou shot in a closed area:

“We met with the reporting party who showed me where the suspects had parked, we then tracked them across a partially frozen swamp to a kill site. After securing the evidence, I noticed Rex kept his nose up and wanted to go north of our location. I released him on a search and he located a second site that we did not have any information on. Again, while collecting evidence, Rex kept pulling me north, to a third site, also unknown.”

In other cases, Rex located trace evidence like a spot of blood on a saw or faint scents on a jacket, giving Barto the necessary link to bring perpetrators to justice.

“I still get amazed by these dogs’ incredible sense of smell, what they can do,” he says.

When not on patrol or solving crimes, Rex and his partner worked with local schools and the community on education and outreach. Barto ensures that his K9 officers have an approachable personality, and often teams up with his daughter, Emily, to socialize them during training. Rex delighted children with demonstrations of his abilities, and served as an ambassador for wildlife protection and safe outdoor recreation. He even had his own trading card!

Both Eider and Rex made it as top dogs to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s K9 law enforcement program through a rigorous selection process, which officers have compared to qualifying as an Olympic athlete. These are the best of the best, with advanced skills and training, patience and drive. Barto praises two characteristics that stand out to him about his K9 companions: their obedience and their joy.

The obedience is a process of commitment and partnership between officer and pup. The K9 officers live with their handlers as working dogs rather than family pets, which takes tremendous discipline and requires complex and consistent training for both handler and dog — “until you see it you can’t believe it.” The element of joy is one that Barto thinks might surprise people: as a reward for their hard work, the dogs get playtime with a toy.

“It is their most favorite thing in the world….it is truly pure joy for them. Their whole body language changes when they know the toy is coming because they did their job.”

Rex recently received his official retirement plaque, and Barto plans to preserve his badge, number 703, in a display. Eider went on his first patrol April 29th, and refuge staff look forward to introducing him to the community. With Eider taking over from Rex as Kenai’s K9 officer, Barto and his daughter Emily look forward to finally allowing his partner of the past decade to enter their home as the family dog, with lots of pats, treats, and of course, toys.

Story by Lisa Hupp, Communications Coordinator for Alaska Refuges

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.

Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store